Oscar Umar and Trey Mitchell have a lot in common.  Both Umar and Mitchell got their start in the NPSL, leveraging that experience into a professional contract.  Both now find themselves playing in the USL and both faced off against each other as the Pittsburgh Riverhounds took on the Richmond Kickers on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.  Both players started the game and put in a full 90 minutes in the 1-1 draw.  Umar was a box-to-box player, staying active in the attack and in defense.  Mitchell, widely regarded as one of the top keepers in all of the USL, was strong in goal, snuffing out a number of Richmond opportunities.

While a shared point for this match may be disappointing for all involved, this was still just a blip on the radar of these two rising stars.

Umar was a star at Villanova, tallying seven goals and 12 assists in 74 appearances (73 starts) on his way to earning two All-BIG EAST selections.  He went on to further success with NPSL side West Chester United SC, his last stop before turning pro.

“Playing in the NPSL was a good experience,” Umar commented. “My goal was to keep in shape.  West Chester was a great place for me.  I played 90 minutes each game.  They were competitive games, kept me on my toes.”

He’s now leading Richmond out of a difficult string of games, trying to finish the season strong.

“It’s not usual to see someone just signed get a starting role on a good team,” Umar continued, speaking of his immediate success with the Kickers.  “We didn’t win any in an 11-game streak.  For me, joining was to help them push for the playoffs.  So far, we are doing a good job.  We just have to start winning more games.  We have five home games and five on the road.  We have to get as many points as we can.”

Umar and the Kickers have a lot of work to do before the season ends.  The Kickers currently are in 15th place with a 3-11-8 record.  A -11 goal differential hasn’t helped matters much.

But playing for the Kickers still had its many benefits; playing against a Premier League side in an international friendly has to be high on the list.

“It has been a very good experience.  Playing against Swansea was absolutely amazing.  You watch Premier League on the TV when you are a kid and then have the opportunity to play against them.  It was such an exciting time.”

The Kickers are an established USL franchise, not a “here today, gone tomorrow” kind of club.  No wonder people want to play there.  Umar is joined on the Richmond roster by yet another NPSL alum, Jackson Eskay, who just happens to be the son of FC Frederick GM Bo Eskay.

Umar has some solid short-term goals, but he has his mind on the big picture as well.

“Individually I want to gain more experience and improve every game.  For me playing soccer professionally, you never want to stay in the same place.   You need to keep climbing the ladder.  I’m using this as a stepping stone, hopefully gain more experience, establish myself, and gain some more exposure to MLS teams or maybe somewhere in Europe.  I’m working hard every day and I’m giving it my all.”

Mitchell has a similar perspective, but the difference is that he has been there before.  The Alta Loma, California native has seen time with the LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, D.C. United, Orlando City B, Philadelphia Union, and Sporting Kansas City, all before signing with the Riverhounds in January of 2017.

A solid season with the Hounds has put Mitchell back on the radar for many MLS scouts and coaches.

“Individually I want to do the best that I can for myself because I know that will help the team out.  Obviously it is focused for the team, but we are in a developmental league and we want to get back to the MLS or get into the MLS.  That is a focus I have of mine, but also I know if I do well, we’re going to win and that helps.”

Mitchell has emerged as the leader of the Riverhounds squad in the locker room and on the stat sheet, currently leading the side in saves and GAA.  He’s also kept a talented Keasal Broome at bay, gaining a further stronghold on the position.  All of this came after some nagging injuries hampered Mitchell earlier in the season.

Pittsburgh is Mitchell’s home and he is focused on helping them finish strong this season.

“I’m a big believer in God and I think God has me here for a reason.  It’s kind of a crazy story on how I got here.  I enjoy what I am doing now.  I enjoy the boys in the locker room.  I enjoy the challenges that we have this season.  I love working with Hunter Gilstrap; he’s big for me.  He really tames me puts me under his wing.  I’ve grown as a player on the field and off the field as well.”

These two NPSL alums have used their experiences in Richmond and Pittsburgh to continue their careers, but it all started back in the NPSL.  And that’s why the NPSL has earned a reputation as one of the country’s top pipelines to the pros.  Umar and Mitchell are great ambassadors for the league, but they are just two of a vast group of NPSL players that have taken that next step of becoming a professional here in North America and abroad.

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